Generations Growing the Family Business
It takes an incredible amount of hard work and dedication to run a farm. The Bernhardt family understands the commitment required for their family farm to be successful, and have been in operation for nearly 100 years. The farm is part of who they are, it’s their life – they’ve invested so much into their cows and land for so long that their devotion to their farm is apparent in everything they do.
Today, the Bernhardts milk over nine hundred cows, but they only milked two cows in the beginning. How do you grow a farm from two cows to over nine hundred? For the Bernhardts, the answer is simple: lots of time.
It all began in 1911. George Bernhardt had recently moved to Denver, Colo. from Russia. He chose Denver because he already had some family here, but it turned out that life in Denver wasn’t what he wanted for his family. George realized he was so consumed with his work – he was working two jobs for over sixteen hours each day – that he didn’t recognize his own children. So he decided to move his family up north and purchased a piece of land in 1916 near the JBS feedlot in La Salle, Colo. and started farming.
In 1920, George bought another farm in nearby Milliken, Colo., and began to sell milk to the local creamery as a way to supplement their income. Though they started with just two cows, by 1930 their farm had grown and they were milking seven cows. At this time, the Bernhardts also raised onions, barley, alfalfa, corn and sugar beets. George was able to harvest three acres of onions to make a profit of $3,300. With that money, they were able to build a new barn and silo, as well as buy a new truck and car.
As anyone who grew up on a farm can attest – the kids were also put to work. Tim Bernhardt, grandson of George, remembers something his dad, Reuben used to say: “He’d tell everyone when he was fifty-eight that he was actually one hundred and eight,” recalled Tim. “He’d say he started milking when he was eight years old, then milked for fifty years’ during the day, and fifty years during the night.”
The Bernhardts continued farming and dairying, and were eventually able to purchase two neighboring farms and milk more cows. In 1948, Reuben took over the farm. At that time, they still used horses to farm, and transferred their milk in cans. Reuben decided it was time to purchase a tractor, and by the early 50’s he took a big leap of faith and bought a bulk tank. Today dairy farmers cannot milk large herds efficiently without bulk tanks, but back then people thought he was crazy for purchasing one. However, the risk paid off and he earned his money back on it within a year.
During this time, apart from taking strides toward more efficient farming, Reuben was also faced with a major challenge: the blizzard of 1949. He and his wife were living in town with a new baby when the blizzard hit. But just like today, farmers didn’t get time off for snow days then either. The cows still needed to be milked and fed, so he had to stay at the farm and work tirelessly to make sure things were taken care of in the extreme weather.
In the 60s and 70s, the farm kept growing. Tim recalled one day when he had just finished up milking, his dad and brother David showed up with two semi-trucks full of cows. The Bernhardts bought heifers and cows from other dairies and by the time Tim graduated from college in 1980, they were milking over 400 cows. They continued the same tactics and kept increasing their herd size over the next few decades.
Then, in 2009, the unimaginable happened. It was a hard time for dairy farmers everywhere, and the family was faced with a tough decision. The Bernhardt family sold its cows to the Cooperatives Working Together (CWT) herd buyout program. Though it was a really hard situation, six months later the family was able to petition to start milking again.
“The day we got the email that we were able to start back up again was the day my dad passed away,” said Tim. “So I was able to tell him, and he knew we were starting again. That makes me feel really good.”
Today, Bernhardt Dairy is going strong. Tim continues to run the farm with his brother David. They have a great partnership and split up their roles on the farm, because in addition to milking over nine hundred cows, they also farm over 1,200 acres of corn and alfalfa.
The family’s hard work doesn’t stop on the farm either. Both of Tim’s daughters own and operate breweries with their husbands in the Greeley area – Wiley Roots Brewing Company and Patrick’s Irish Pub. He knows they got their entrepreneurial spirit from working on the farm and seeing how a business is run.
Tim takes great pride in continuing his family’s legacy, and his favorite part about farming is watching brand new baby calves being born; to him it has a deeper meaning than just having more calves on the farm.
“It represents the ongoing business, ongoing life,” he says. “It’s a full circle.”